National deputy leader Shane Reti issues 'call to arms' over bill to increase cancer drugs affordability, accessibility

Shane Reti.
Shane Reti. Photo credit: Newshub.

By RNZ's First Up

National Party deputy leader Shane Reti has issued a "call to arms" over his bill demanding district health boards (DHBs) administer costly cancer drugs bought privately by sufferers.

Dr Reti says cancer patients are being hit with a double whammy of having to spend their life savings to get the drugs they require and then being forced to spend just as much having these administered.

He told First Up it wasn't right people needed to take out loans or remortgage homes to access essential drugs Pharmac didn't support - as much as $60,000 for a course of treatment.

Some people could access money to buy the drugs, but he said what in many cases turned out to be "the straw that broke the camel's back" was the equal cost of administering the drugs.

Dr Reti, a Whangārei GP, is calling for a law change that will see unfunded chemotherapy drugs administered by the DHBs so patients don't need to resort to expensive private clinics.

He said he had been consulting with stakeholders and oncologists for several months, including the Cancer Foundation and oncologists, and he had been receiving many letters of encouragement from cancer sufferers all over the country.

"A gentleman in Auckland said 'Shane, my DHB is 15 minutes away. I drive … three-and-a-half hours past my DHB to sit in an armchair for three hours to have my cancer chemotherapy that Pharmac will not fund," Dr Reti said.

"This is gathering a groundswell. What happens here is, unfortunately, if you develop cancer, let's say lung cancer, and you're recommended to have something like ATRA - that's not funded by Pharmac.

"So you then have to take out a mortgage or a loan. A lot of people go [to] Givealittle pages to get the roughly $60,000 it costs for a course of that cancer medicine.

"Here's what my Bill looks at. Because it's not funded by Pharmac, you aren't allowed to have it administered by the DHB. So you have to pay almost the same amount again, about $1000 per week to have it administered.

"To have it administered you sit in an armchair [for] about three or four hours, you have a drip in and the cancer medicine trickles into your arm, you have a very experienced chemo nurse around you and you have some recordings taken maybe every 30 minutes.

"There's a sentence in the current legislation that says if your medicine is not funded by Pharmac you cannot have it administered in the DHB and that just doesn't seem right. These people have already taken out loans, they've already sold off their assets - surely we can fund an armchair to at least remove that hurdle."

Dr Reti is urging people to lobby their MPs to ensure his bill is lifted out of the ballot box, so a Parliamentary select committee can look at the merits of what he's proposing and in light of the plight of cancer sufferers.

"The call to arms is I need 61 backbench MPs to say 'OK, I think that should go to select committee. I think we should discuss that.

"Let's hear the voices of the people in this situation. There's about 500-to-1000 myself and the oncologists think, so it's a small number but it has a huge impact."

The Government's position on Dr Reti's Bill is it would create more inequality within the public health service as it would simply give public funding for people wealthy enough to fund their own medicine to have it administered.

A statement released to media on Monday stated: "Reti's bill would mean that people who are wealthy enough to fund their own currently unfunded cancer treatments would then take up space in the public health system that would otherwise go to patients whose cancer treatment is publicly funded."

Dr Reti also said he had not flip-flopped over a decision to receive an early COVID-19 jab last week but had simply requested clarification from the Health Ministry as to why he was being requested to get one administered as he believed he was not a priority case and hadn't wanted to jump the queue. He said he was happy to get a vaccine early if it would help prove its safety.

"When I was approached I said 'I have no reason to jump the queue, show me what priority I am,'" he said.

"Later that day, that's exactly what happened, I got a letter from [COVID-19 Response] Minister Chris Hipkins lining out why he wanted me and why it would be appropriate for me to have a prioritised vaccine, to which I replied 'thank you. If it's useful to the overall coronavirus rollout, then yes I'm happy to have that profile that supports the vaccine.'"

On the issue of the trans-Tasman travel bubble, Dr Reti said Tuesday's announcement by the Government should be substantive and detailed to reassure businesses affected by the lack of overseas visitors.

"We really need to hear more than just another announcement about an announcement.

"I'm really hoping we'll get some detail and a timeframe, any new conditions as to when a new trans-Tasman bubble will open. We need to remember that Australia opened the bubble to us in October and November last year.

"We know businesses, particularly tourism businesses are hurting, so what I'm hoping to hear is a schedule, conditions, and details about where, what, and when."

He clarified the position of his party to fluoridation of water should be left up to local authorities, but as a compromise had suggested the DHBs maintain input into the decision-making processes of the central Government.

"We just think local people should have a voice."